Thursday, August 26, 2010

Dong for Dong

So far, I have had many positive experiences here in Hanoi. People have been super friendly, wanting to talk and practice their English and learn about where I am from. Others just stare, but it is not rude to do that here, so I guess I will take it as a compliment. Hanoi also seems like a very safe city. Tons of people, lots of trash, but not a lot of crime. I have not felt unsafe since I have been here, (that may have something to do with the fact that I am bigger than everyone haha).

But, here is a story of one experience that was not pleasant. I did not feel scared as much as annoyed, irritated, pissed, and shocked. I also have no way of knowing whether this was the exception or if this happens often...

Xe oms are motorbike taxis. They are all over the city and usually have a sign up saying 'xe om' and have a driver with two helmets. Because motorbikes are everywhere in Hanoi, I decided that if I was going to experience Hanoi, I would at some point have to ride a motorbike. I decided to start early - might as well have the experience before the students arrive. Plus, xe oms are supposed to be cheaper than taxis...

So one evening at dusk, I decided to take a xe om to my colleagues' apartment. It was not far and usually cost 30,000VND in a taxi. As usual, tons of xe om drivers tapped their seats as I walked by asking me if I want a ride. Finally, after talking myself up and getting up the courage to do it, I say yes to one. I put the helmet over my blond bun and took my seat behind the driver. I gave him the address and showed him the location on the map. At no point was I worried that he would just drive me somewhere random and kill me or anything else. It was definitely cool - a rush even - to be zipping through traffic on the back of a xe om. I had a death grip on the back of the seat where there was a little bar I could grab. Soon, the xe om driver was talking to me, asking about the address. Then, while driving, he took my arms and put them around his waist. I had seen tons of people riding like this, so I assumed it was the way to go, but still just sort of slide my arms less around him and more just resting on his sides. I knew enough about my location that I could tell that we were close....

*three minutes or so pass*

I am livid and tell the xe om driver to stop (in English, but he doesn't need to understand the words - he can hear my tone). I am not sure where I am, but I know I am close enough to walk to the apartment. He tried to charge me 50,000VND! I refuse, but I am so pissed and disgusted that I did not want to see the driver anymore, so I just paid him 40,000VND and proceeded to get my bearings and find my way.

Now, what happened in those three minutes? Well, you can probably guess, being that the title of this blog is 'dong for dong'. Yes, that is how it went. He put my hands around his waist, and then, next thing I know, as I am enjoying feeling the polluted wind in my hair and seeing the sights of Hanoi whiz by, he lets me know that he is enjoying the ride too. He takes my hand, and puts it, yup, right on his Vietnamese dong - and I am not talking money here.

So there you have it. My first truly maddening and unpleasant experience in Vietnam. Needless to say, that is most likely the last xe om ride that I accept for a while! Unless, of course, I'd like to pay some dong for dong.

Vietnam motto - 'do what you want'

Now that I have been in Hanoi for about two and half weeks, I am going through the stages of culture shock. One thing that I keep realizing and keeps surprising me is that common sense is not the same everywhere. I knew I would be introduced to new customs, new ideas, new foods, new ways of doing, but I did not expect to learn new realities, practicalities, logic, and common sense.

I learn new and different 'ways of doing' in Hanoi everyday. One of the most obvious things to me is that the say starts much earlier here. Parks and lakes and streets are filled with people doing their early morning exercises as early as 4am! They are doing aerobics, walking, jogging, doing different kinds of martial arts, sitting on benches, cuddling on benches, meditating - all kinds of things! Then, after that, around maybe 7:30am, the parks calm down and for some, become almost deserted, lest for a few gardeners in conical hats and zooming motorbikes. That is when the traffic begins to really pick up. Crossing the street becomes less of dodging zooming motorbikes and more of walking through a stationary maze of them. People are always on the sides of the streets sitting on mini chairs at mini tables (the kind we use as home in the States for little kids' play things) eating pho or some other kind of noodle soup. Or they are on the side of the road washing the plucked ducks for dinner that night. Or they are setting up their temporary kitchen, again on the side of the road. As you walk down the street, especially during meal times, there are so many smells mixed up in the constant air pollution from cars and motorbikes. I think that everything is even more new and different to me because I have never lived in a city, let alone a foreign one!

Ok, enough with the little descriptions - here is why, so far, I am saying Vietnam's motto is 'do what you want'.
1. If there is a ton of traffic, and you are not even able to maneuver your motorbike around others, then you can just drive your bike up on the sidewalk. It's just like a mini-road, I mean, it is flat and their are people and things to beep at. So I have learned that the sidewalk is not as safe as I had imagined! During rush hours, I now know that I always need to be aware of horns and motorbikes. Even if I am on the sidewalk, they could be beeping at me to get out of their way!
2. If you want to dig a hole in the sidewalk, or build something, or start a restaurant outside of your house, then you do it.
3. If you are hungry and you need food, you can eat dog.
4. If you want to buy a big new flat screen tv, a mattress, maybe a kitchen sink, some groceries, and you have your two kids with you, no big deal, just put it all on your motorbike and go.
5. If you need to turn right, but it is a one-way street going the other direction, whatever, just turn right. Make sure you beep.
6. If you want to charge one person 50,000VND for a bottle of water and another person 10,000VND for that same bottle of water, then do it.
7. If you don't want to pay that much money, then don't. Bargain for a better price.
8. If you are tired, it doesn't matter where you, do what you want and go to sleep!

I will have to continue this list later, but there are so many examples. Basically, there is no yielding in Vietnam. That is not to say that it is malicious in any way. What it seems like is people saying, 'sure you can go, but I am going first' or 'whatever, do what you want, I'm just doing what I want first'. So yeah, Vietnam - do what you want.

This is a picture of all of the different ingredients that went into my fruity drink from my other post. I have no idea what they all were, but some were fruity, some were jello-y, some were crunchy... overall it was quite refreshing!

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

evening of Day 14...tropical storm has been upgraded to Typhoon Warning

Ok, so maybe I am enjoying this blog a bit too much, or maybe I need to go out and party in the city...but either way, here are a few more pics...the water park in the beginning of the typhoon, traffic on my walk to school, my dinner of grubs, silk village, a yummy drink, and me on a crowded bus!

Here are the before and after of my I sleep on a ton of pillows - do not touch the 'mattress' at all...

Day 14 - Tropical Storm #1

So today marks the two week mark for my stay in Hanoi. I can't say that I love it yet, but I don't hate it either. I am finding my way and figuring out a life here. Yesterday my three colleagues and I decided to check out the Hanoi water park. Forecast looked good - 94 degrees and sunny. Lisa managed the map and we took a few different buses (3,000VND each - exchange rate is about 19,100VND per $1) and arrived at the water park...around the same time that the tropical storm arrived. Pouring rain, thunder, and lightning met us at the park. We made it to the ticket booth just in time for them to show us that the park was closed. Bummer. It looked pretty cool. Plus, there were pictures of Disney characters all over the place. Today, the rain continues, though there was sun in the early morning.

For the past two weeks, my job has been to explore Hanoi and adapt I suppose, so that when my 14 students arrive, I will be freaking out a bit less than them. 14 American students will arrive in Hanoi this Friday. Some will stay to study for the semester, some for the year. They will live with host families. I am sure that they will be amazing kids - I cannot imagine doing this as a teenager! Plus, my apartment is already acting as my sanctuary, my escape from the craziness of the city.

So much has happened in my first two weeks here, that I cannot even begin to describe each 'cultural experience'. Some have been great and entertaining, while others have been dismal and depressing, but all have been eye-opening. I have found a park to run in (which is empty from about 10am-4pm and ridiculous busy otherwise with people walking, jogging, doing aerobics, resting, cuddling, sleeping, all kinds of things!). I have found a Fivimart very close to my apartment that carries peanut butter, nutella, and granola - which are things that I have not been able to find and have been craving. I am really enjoying my colleagues - John, Ted, and Lisa. We have been exploring together and all seem to get along well.

The traffic and the food are the most jarring things that I noticed when I first arrived in Hanoi. Oh yeah, and the overwhelming humidity. Supposedly it gets quite nice (65 degrees or so) in the winter. Hanoians will wear pants and long sleeve shirts...which they do in the heat as well. I have gotten used to the traffic already. Beeps are constant, and they are not saying, 'what are you doing? Get out of my way' as they would in the States. They are saying 'I am going. I am here. If you do not move, I will hit you.'. Horns are about the person honking them, not about anyone else. They have even customized horns so that one hit will continue in a little horn song so that they don't have to tire themselves out honking it.

The food has been fun too. Unlike other tourists (uhh which there are zero of in Cau Giay where I am living near Vietnam National University), we are not being too careful about what we eat. Obviously, we are not drinking the water - no one does - but we are eating at all kinds of places. Street food has been our go-to. It is about 20,000VND for a huge plate of rice and then any mix of vegetables, meat, egg, tofu, or whatever else they are serving that night. Pho (beef noodle soup) is on every menu. Nem are spring rolls, which I actually have not seen a ton of...regardless, John, Ted, Lisa, and I are not going hungry!

My next post will describe some specific stories of things that have happened so far...but today I will post a few pictures as well.

Monday, August 23, 2010

As I sit on my couch, watching reruns of Cougar Town on a channel called Star World while eating green sticky rice ice cream out of the carton with a child-size spoon that I bought for 2,000VND at Fivimart, I realize that after living for almost two weeks in Hanoi, I am, consciously or not, starting to adapt.

After teaching math at a New England boarding school for five years, moving to Hanoi, Vietnam was a huge change. I say that I spent the past five years 'teaching math', but what that truly entailed was so much more. I filled the proverbial 'triple-threat' model perfectly. I taught a full load of four courses, coached two varsity sports, and lived in the dorm. Yet, even that more detailed explanation does not even begin to describe my life for those five years. Within that time and within that boarding-school-bubble, I had some of my own personal highest highs and lowest lows. This is not to say that I have never felt greater happiness or more intense loss in my life outside of those five years, but it was in that time that I had the most influential internal developments. And change never does come easily. But I guess that is what I get for spending my early-to-mid twenties in the middle of nowhere while living in the dorm with a bunch of teenagers. Somehow I always felt ten years older or ten years younger than I actually was...

And that is why I needed the ultimate change. I could have stayed at boarding school. I could have accepted my spot at Columbia Teacher's College to earn my Master's degree in Educational Psychology. Instead, I chose to live in Hanoi, Vietnam from August 2010 to June 2011. I could not have made a more extreme move.

I have always made the practical, logical choices in life. Moving to Hanoi, especially in light of the Columbia option, was neither practical nor logical. But there was something drawing me there, or here, as we now have it. One thing that I have become aware of in the past few years is the idea of fate and intuition. Without divulging any embarrassing stories (it's only my first post!), I will say that I have learned that my intuition is strong, and that I should listen to it and obey without doubt. Whether it was intuition, fate, God, or complete delusion on my part, something kept pulling me to Vietnam.

After being here for two weeks, I have no idea what that thing was. After a 27+ hour travel day, I arrived in the Hanoi airport around 10pm. I was fetched by the director of my program and dropped off at a supposedly 'fully furnished' apartment located on a street with no name that was filled with the smells of motorbike exhaust and grilled duck (or maybe that was dog?). Apparently, 'fully furnished' does not include a mattress or any kitchen supplies. I spent that first night on the couch, and woke up with a start. The first words out of my mouth were 'wtf. what the hell was I thinking? what am I doing here?'
To backtrack, I am an all-American girl. I have blond hair, blue eyes, a love for sports, an addiction to sugar, and a religious penchant for US Weekly magazine. I had only just begun to travel and think about the outside world in the summer of 2009. In the past year, I have visited and spent at least two weeks each in South Africa, China, Ecuador, the Galapagos, and now, Vietnam. Maybe I have caught the travel bug? Or maybe I am insatiable...continuing to search for something that I can neither define nor locate. The kicker is that whatever I am looking for is most likely not in another country, but is something I must find within myself. But that is life, isn't it? Everyone is always searching for something. Is contentment ever a reality?

I guess it doesn't really matter. My search has led me to Hanoi, and that is where my blog is supposed to begin. I suppose all of this is just the prologue. And now, I have exhausted myself before I have even begun. Therefore, my first post about me, a single 27 year-old blond girl living in Hanoi, can be summed up in one short and concise statement assuming that my choices are the same as any living thing; to adapt, migrate, or become extinct. So far, I choose to adapt.